Bridging the Gap in Sustainability: A Conversation with Professor Isabel on Innovation, and Social Responsibility

Dr Isabel Fischer with Covelent
The discourse on corporate sustainability often pivots towards environmental concerns, and tends to remain there in perpetuity, overshadowing the arguably equal aspect of social responsibility and the impact this along with innovation in this area can have on long-term growth.

The discourse on corporate sustainability often pivots towards environmental concerns, and tends to remain there in perpetuity, overshadowing the arguably equal aspect of social responsibility and the impact this along with innovation in this area can have on long-term growth.

Sitting down with Covelent to peel back the layers of this issue is Dr. Isabel Fischer, an Associate Professor in Information Systems at Warwick Business School. Her academic pursuits and research intersect environmental and social responsibility, technology, and education, marking her as a distinguished voice to discuss how we got here and where we need to go. Dr. Fischer's extensive AI research and practical experience, particularly in the field of Education where she spearheaded the Warwick response to generative artificial intelligence (AI) and developed an innovative AI-based formative feedback tool, showcases her commitment to leveraging technology for educational advancement and how this pushes forward the agenda of social equity.

In addition to her academic achievements, Dr. Fischer regularly contributes her insights at international conferences on sustainability, education and AI and has represented Warwick at parliamentary roundtable discussions in Westminster. This rich background, coupled with a 20+ year career as a senior executive for Visa and American Express sharpens Dr. Fischer's perspective, particularly in understanding and advocating for the balanced integration of AI, ethics, and environmental and social sustainability in business and education sectors.

The Underestimated Role of Social Sustainability

Dr. Fischer's research provides insightful analysis into the often-overlooked aspect of social sustainability within the business sector. She identifies a prevalent bias where sustainability is predominantly associated with environmental concerns, overshadowing the equally critical dimension of social responsibility. Dr. Fischer notes, "The term 'sustainability' commonly triggers thoughts of environmental challenges, leading to a significant underestimation of social responsibility." This trend results in environmental issues being prioritised in corporate agendas, frequently at the expense of social sustainability efforts.

Moreover, Dr. Fischer explores the underlying reasons for this disparity. She points out a widespread belief that environmental issues are so urgent and so pressing that they diminish the importance of social factors. "There's a common perception that environmental issues are paramount, leading to a lesser focus on other aspects," she states. This viewpoint has led to an imbalanced emphasis on environmental sustainability, often neglecting key aspects of social sustainability, essentially moving it into the domain of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This is a worrying trend that can have an outsized impact on growth initiatives cultivated from the conversations around social sustainability.

The Covelent 2024 Workforce Survey, encompassing over 2000 respondents across the UK, mirrors this imbalance. The survey indicates that while 70% of employees are committed to addressing environmental challenges, only 8% show similar dedication towards social sustainability issues. This disparity underscores the necessity for businesses to adopt a more holistic approach to sustainability, giving equal weight to both environmental and social factors.

The Interdependence of Environmental and Social Sustainability

Dr. Fischer underscores the nexus between environmental and social sustainability and its place in modern business strategies. Using the familiar adage to highlight this connection, stating, "The debate at the board level whether in a corporate or education setting is akin to the chicken and egg scenario. Neglecting social challenges can hinder environmental solutions, and vice versa." Dr. Fischer's observation highlights the cyclical dilemma in sustainability initiatives, where disregarding either social or environmental aspects can detrimentally affect the other.

This interrelation, as pointed out by Dr. Fischer, suggests that truly effective sustainability strategies necessitate a fusion of both environmental and social elements when addressing traditionally isolated challenges in either category. For instance, environmental initiatives are substantially enhanced when they integrate diverse viewpoints, fostering more creative and inclusive outcomes. Similarly, social sustainability measures are more impactful when they are mindful of environmental aspects, leading to a more thorough and effective strategy.

Hence, it is crucial for businesses and policymakers to recognise that simultaneously addressing environmental and social sustainability is not just advantageous, but essential for long-term resilience and sustainability. Adopting a holistic sustainability framework is not a new idea, yet its practical implementation remains a significant challenge for many organisations. The true barometer of success in this field is in its execution, which often presents substantial opportunities for improvement. With that in mind, this can lead to a more robust and comprehensive approach to corporate sustainability. Companies that successfully integrate these facets are likely to experience enhanced brand reputation, customer loyalty, and operational efficiencies, catalysing their overall growth trajectory.

There's a growing disparity as technology and EdTech advance, while technology in applied education remains relatively static

Innovation as a Catalyst for Social Equity

Historically, the pursuit of social sustainability has been driven by a continuous stream of innovation, aimed at crafting solutions that foster long-term societal well-being and equity. In this evolving landscape, the advent and advancements in AI have emerged as a transformative force, offering unprecedented opportunities to enhance and accelerate these efforts towards more effective and inclusive social sustainability initiatives.

Dr. Fischer demonstrates a pragmatic example of leveraging AI for societal benefit in an educational environment. She pioneered the development of an AI-powered tool that offers formative feedback to students, specifically aimed at closing the gap in educational support. Isabel elaborated, "My goal was to devise a feedback mechanism that delivers timely, formative feedback to all students, with a particular focus on supporting first-generation scholars."

Despite garnering acclaim and acknowledgement from prestigious journals and the Times Education Supplement, the project encountered difficulties with securing adequate funding and achieving scalability. Highlighting a larger issue present in academic innovation, in particular innovation and for social sustainability purposes. It underscores the need for more comprehensive strategies and support mechanisms to fully realise the potential of innovation, in this case AI in enhancing social good, particularly in educational settings. Such initiatives often require a blend of innovation, strategic planning, and robust funding models to overcome barriers and achieve sustainable impact. 

The potential of such innovations to drive growth is immense. By leveraging technology for social good, educational and for profit organisations can open new avenues for growth and development, positioning themselves as leaders in an increasingly socially-conscious market. This approach exemplifies a growth strategy that aligns innovation with social equity, creating a sustainable pathway for development and progress

Challenges in Education and Innovation

In her discourse on innovation in the educational sector, Dr. Fischer identifies a critical disconnect between rapid technological evolution and its tangible implementation in educational contexts. She notes, "There's a growing disparity as technology and EdTech advance, while technology in applied education remains relatively static. While we value our process and rigour in higher education, it can inadvertently become a hindrance."

This observation underscores a pivotal challenge: the sluggish integration of innovative technologies within academic circles and more traditional industries. This reluctance to implement and scale new technologies can significantly widen the educational divide, subsequently curtailing the potential benefits that such technological progress could bring. It highlights the necessity for a more agile and adaptive approach within the educational sector, ensuring that institutions can effectively harness technological advancements to enrich and evolve educational methodologies and outcomes. This balance between maintaining academic rigour and embracing innovation is essential for closing the educational gap and fully leveraging the advantages of technological progress.

Preparing Future Leaders for Social Challenges

In her teaching, Dr. Fischer places a strong emphasis on preparing students for future leadership roles within the sphere of social sustainability. She has innovatively developed teaching cases that delve into the ethics of artificial intelligence and impact investing. These cases explore the capacity of AI in evaluating corporate ESG metrics and its utility in analysing human behaviours in the context of these metrics.

These initiatives are instrumental in fostering a comprehensive understanding of the ethical dimensions of technology in the realm of corporate sustainability. They highlight the significant potential for well-capitalised sectors to leverage innovative approaches, taking them from conceptual stages to market implementation. This focus on practical applications of AI in assessing ESG metrics not only enriches the learning experience but also equips future leaders with the insights and tools necessary to navigate the complex interplay between technology and corporate responsibility. This approach aligns with the evolving landscape of business, where an understanding of technological impacts on sustainability is increasingly critical for effective leadership and innovation. 

This forward-thinking approach is essential for growth-focused organisations. By equipping future leaders with the skills to address social challenges through technology, Dr. Fischer is effectively laying the groundwork for the next generation of growth-driven, socially responsible business leaders. These efforts are instrumental in shaping a future where business growth and social sustainability are inextricably linked.

Advancing Social Sustainability in Organisations

Reflecting on her extensive professional journey, offers valuable insights into nurturing an innovation-centric culture within organisations. Dr. Fisher observes, "In reality, even when there are mechanisms to steer innovative thinking towards new ideas, these ideas often meet resistance or scepticism from colleagues, primarily due to a fear of their suggestions being perceived as trivial." This underscores the critical need for an organisational environment that not only encourages but actively supports the generation and exploration of new ideas, particularly in the domain of social sustainability.

Embracing principles of design thinking, Dr. Fischer has been instrumental in establishing a 'safe space' for idea exchange and discussion. This approach fosters an open and collaborative environment where ideas are shared and refined collectively, rather than in isolation. This shift in dynamics, moving away from traditional closed-door discussions to more inclusive and participatory forums, is pivotal in cultivating a culture where innovation is not just welcomed, but is a fundamental aspect of the organisational ethos. Such an environment is especially vital when considering social sustainability, where innovative ideas can significantly contribute to addressing complex social challenges.

Looking Back to Look Forward

The discourse on Dr. Isabel Fischer's contributions significantly accentuates an essential shift in the corporate sustainability paradigm. Despite notable advancements in environmental stewardship, the equally imperative space of social responsibility often receives less attention. The 2024 Workforce Survey's findings vividly highlight this disparity, showcasing a noticeable divergence in corporate and employee engagement across environmental and social sustainability efforts.

Dr. Fischer's insights and experiences issue a powerful appeal for a more comprehensive perspective on sustainability. Her work not only underscores the interplay between environmental and social elements but also exemplifies the role of innovative approaches, such as the application of AI in educational contexts, in bridging these gaps. The challenges and triumphs she has encountered across academic and industrial landscapes offer a robust framework for enhancing corporate sustainability practices.

For the attainment of true sustainable development, it is imperative for businesses and policymakers to acknowledge and address the need to meaningfully integrate social sustainability alongside environmental initiatives in ways that can be actively measured. Necessitating a reevaluation of existing strategies and the cultivation of innovative and inclusive cultures that consider all aspects of sustainability. Dr. Fischer's insights and pioneering efforts represent the calibre of leadership and dedication essential for instigating this transformative shift within the corporate sector, driving forward a balanced and sustainable future.

You can read Dr. Fischer’s published research here. 

Related Insights from Covelent
By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.